The Biden administration’s top Middle East official on Thursday defended Saudi Arabia, saying that many in Congress don’t realize that Riyadh is working to end the conflict in Yemen.
The Saudi-backed government in Yemen has been at war with the rebel Houthis since 2015. While Saudi Arabia started out as the aggressor to wipe out the rebel group, the Houthis have recently increased the pace of attacks, launching multiple missiles into Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates this month that killed three civilians. In response, President Joe Biden is considering putting the Houthis back on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.
Amid this violence, Brett McGurk, the National Security Council’s coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, said the Houthis are unwilling to engage in the process of negotiating a ceasefire and have repeatedly targeted civilians with missile attacks.
“Over the last year, the Saudis have supported UN initiatives…to wind down the war. The Houthis have answered those initiatives by launching a massive offensive inside Yemen,” McGurk said at a virtual event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It takes two to get to a ceasefire and end the war and right now the onus is on the Houthis.”
Despite that, many in Congress still view the conflict as it was in 2015, when the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing campaign killed thousands of civilians and created a humanitarian disaster in Yemen that is affecting millions. The United States supported the Saudi coalition through intelligence sharing and arms sales until February 2021, when Biden announced America would end its support for “offensive operations.”
McGurk said officials have had serious discussions with Saudi officials about the lack of Congressional support, which could be “dangerous.” Despite that, he said the “historic” partnership with Saudi Arabia will continue.
“We are committed fundamentally to helping Saudi Arabia defend its sovereign territory and its sovereign space. The defense of Saudi Arabia is a fundamental very important interest of ours, [and] something we’re working on every day,” said McGurk, who previously served as the former special presidential envoy for the global coalition to defeat ISIS.
America is still the partner of choice for Middle Eastern allies and the “first call” after an attack, despite China’s efforts to increase its influence in the region, McGurk said. But he said he was “surprised” by how much progress Beijing has made in the region when he took the job more than a year ago.
“We have had a very close dialogue with friends across the region about certain activities that would jeopardize the level of American cooperation,” he said, adding that military or technical cooperation with China would impact American partnerships. “We have had a very good dialogue, and a bit of an awakening I think from some of our partners in the Middle East region about this issue.”
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